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REVIEW:  Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

REVIEW: Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

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Dear Readers,

If you’ve never read anything by Georgette Heyer beyond her Regencies, or you’re not interested in prissy Regencies, preferring action and adventure, then do yourself a favor and try this one. It might be that because my introduction to Heyer was through her Georgians and Beauvallet that this is where my preference lies but, honestly I think it’s because these are just darn good books.

What’s the plot? Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva is on her way back to Spain with her ailing father from his administrative post in the New World. The captain of the ship taking them home spies a vessel he knows is captained by English privateer Nicholas Beauvallet and, unable to resist trying to bring this most hated man in Spain to justice, he orders his men to open fire. Never one to turn down a challenge, Nick and his crew respond and the battle is on. Unfortunately for the Spanish captain, the fight is short, the English win and he and his crew are put in lifeboats and advised to sail to the nearest island.

Dominica is no shrinking violet and loudly states her opinion of Nicholas and the English. It’s not pretty. But Nick laughingly dismisses her tantrums and sees that she and her father, as well as her duenna and their belongings are transferred to his ship. What are his intentions, he’s asked – or is challenged depending on who’s doing to speaking? Why, to carry them both back to Spain. Doesn’t he know he’s a wanted man in Spain? Yes, but he’s not going to let a little trifling like that stop him.

As they sail across the Atlantic, Dominica pouts, sulks, flirts with others and generally tries to act as if she doesn’t care. Something that is negated by the fact that she can’t stop asking Nick’s valet and first lieutenant about him. He, on the other hand, is bluntly open and honest about the fact that he’s in love with her and wants to marry her. It’s only in the finale of the voyage that Dominica is honest with herself as well. But what’s to do? Nick has promised to set them down on Spanish soil and he’s a man of his word.

He promises to come back for her before the year is out but Dominica is a realist at last and knows his chances are slim to none that he could pull off getting her out of a land which wants him dead, dead and then a little more dead. She doesn’t count on three things. One – he doesn’t turn down a challenge. Two – he’s a man of his word. Three – his family motto is “Reck Not!”

This book really needs to be read while listening to a soundtrack by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Something dashing, with lots of trumpets blaring to stir the blood and make you think swashbuckler-y thoughts then a switch to lush violins for the romance. Warner Brothers should have made this in a movie as it’s packed with derring-do, panache, boldness, cunning and laughs.

Okay first let me list some reasons you might not like this book and get them out of the way. Nick calls Dominica “child” a lot and there’s an obvious difference in their maturity levels. This is slightly off putting to me but not as much as it would be in a more contemporary novel. Dominica is headstrong as is the case with a lot of historic Heyer heroines and worse, she’s a high spirited aristocrat though she doesn’t annoy me as much as Leonie from “These Old Shades.” A lot of time is spent early in the book detailing the Beauvallet homestead in Hampshire with lots of noblesse oblige and brow knuckling servants who are just damn happy to please the Quality. None of this lasts long and the book is soon off and soaring into high adventure but I thought I’d mention all this and the fact that it’s soon finished in case anyone thinks they’re going to get bogged down in it for the duration.

Now for the good stuff. Nick is bursting with energy and vitality and goes straight for what he wants. What keeps him from being overbearing is by being easily cowed by some of Dominica’s whiles and stratagems – though others he sees through and chuckles at. When he tells her that he loves her, he means it and no second guessing.

By the time the action moves to Spain, Dominica begins to show some spirit that I can actually admire instead of her highstrung antics aboard the Venture. She sharpens her wits on the situation, displays herself better and shows herself a worthy woman whom man like Beauvallet would find a satisfying life with. Pretty only goes so far.

For Nick “failure is not an option” not because he’s going to push past anything and triumph against all odds – he just doesn’t ever think he’s not going to come out on top and with what he wants. “Can’t, won’t, unable” are words that aren’t in his vocabulary – he cheerfully can’t conceive of them. His daring escape from prison in Madrid will make your blood sing with excitement. I can feel the sheer joy of it leap off the pages as Nick improvises and charges headlong at all obstacles. Reck Not! indeed.

Still though Nick is usually devil-may-care about most things, when something stands between he and what he wants – he will buckle down and do what he must – such as when he told Dominca’s Aunt Beatrice had she been a man, he would have killed her if she continued to try and thwart him.

There are two secondary characters I have to mention as well. I had forgotten the character of Nick’s valet Joshua Dimmick – what fun. I love his running monologues as he talks to himself, using great language. Is it period or just made up? I had so much fun reading it that I don’t care. At least then you could still get good family retainers and valets. And I almost admire Senora Beatriz who has the wit to admire her foes when they act bravely, display courage and almost beat her. I pity her her weak husband and indolent fool of a son. What she could have accomplished without them as millstones around her neck.

A good pace is maintained throughout. There’s tension where it’s needed and high spirits anon. The fights are more hinted at but there’s enough to follow what’s going on and add color to the narrative. The romance is stirring and the ending will keep you glued to the pages. I do think Nick acted wisely in not telling his Queen his true reason to head to Spain, though. If you’ve only read the Heyer Regencies, treat yourself and give this one a try. A-

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnston

REVIEW: The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnston

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Morocco, 1677.

The tyrannical King Ismail resides over the palace of Meknes. Through the sweltering heat of the palace streets, Nus Nus, slave to the King and forced into his live of servitude as court scribe, is sent to the apothecary. There he discovers the bloody corpse of the herb man, and becomes entangled in a plot to frame him for the murder. Juggling the tempestuous Moroccan king, sorceress queen Zidana and the malicious Grand Vizier is his only hope to escape the blame.

Meanwhile, young, fair Alys Swann is captured during her crossing to England, where she is due to be wed. Sold into Ismail’s harem, she is forced to choose: renounce her faith or die.

An unlikely alliance develops between Alys and Nus Nus, one that will help them to survive the horrifying ordeals of the Moroccan court.

Brimming with rich historical detail and peppered with real characters, from Charles I to Samuel Pepys, The Sultan’s Wife is a story of enduring love and adventure.

Dear Ms. Johnson,

I was enchanted when I read “The Tenth Gift.” I was much less pleased with“The Salt Road” even though it revisited the country of Morocco and also used the same dual timeline to tell its story. This left me torn about even trying “The Sultan’s Wife” which was already out in paperback then. Did I want to risk another disappointment or would I be rewarded in the end? In the end, a comment on my review of “The Salt Road” which likened it more to “Gift” decided me.

Now this is more the kind of book I wanted the last time. The descriptions of life in 1670/80s Morocco are vivid and the visuals stunning. What a magnificent place the palace of Meknes must have been in its day though the suffering to build it seems to have rivaled anything achieved by Louis XIV, Peter the Great or Qin Shi Huang. But then Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif didn’t seem to have heard an adjective or adverb that he didn’t want to better. Eight hundred children from over 1,000 concubines? My mind reels.

But what this book has that the previous one I read didn’t is compelling characters I care about and / or want to see more of as well as a quicker pace. The story hums along with few slow spots and never lost my interest. Which characters was I interested in? Well all of them, hero, heroine, villains, supporting secondary or merely passers-by. I might not have liked them all and positively cheered when a few got what they richly deserved for making everyone else’s life a living hell but they didn’t bore me, annoy me or make me want to slap them off the page.

Since the book is named for Alys, I’ll start with talking about her even though she doesn’t appear on page for quite a while. From the beginning I did want more of her POV and longer, more explanative scenes. Major things happen in her life but they’re skipped or we come in on scene 2 or 3 having missed the opening of the play. Her capture by Barbery pirates? Missed. Her arrival in Meknes and initial presentation to the Sultan? Not there. Why she finally decided to capitulate and “convert?” Well, Nus-Nus had explained a bit about the fact that if she didn’t, they’d both eventually die long after they wished they wanted to but she still appeared to be philosophically debating the issue when the scene ended.

Still Alys has got some spirit and backbone to her. She doesn’t back down in the face of the Barbary pirates, either onboard ship or once she gets to Morocco. At the time Nus Nus meets her, she has been bastinadoed and has the Sultan screaming at her yet she hasn’t yet yielded her faith or her virginity. She listens, she learns and she survives.

Her choice to sexually submit to the Sultan is understandable once Nus Nus has explained the mechanisms of power in the harem. Catch the Sultan’s attention – but not too much – bear a child – preferentially a son – and you can be set for a long, luxurious life.

Once I accepted the idea that I wasn’t going to see as much of Alys’s POV as that of Nus Nus, I was eventually okay with it as I found Nus Nus to be such an interesting and charismatic character. His story is unfortunately a common one of being sold into slavery but like Alys, Nus Nus is a survivor. He survived being sold into slavery, twice, survived being castrated, survived the sodomite attentions of the truly oily and despicable grand vizier and has gained some agency in his life. True as a slave he doesn’t have all that much but he’s carved out a niche in the palace in the service of the Sultan having learned how to “roll with the punches” and face down his opponents.

Nus Nus is also an intelligent and decent guy. He’s learned different languages, enough about herbs to detect when the Sultan’s Chief Wife is up to no good, and knows when to hold his tongue and keep a secret. His sense of duty is impeccable and his wits are keen – good things when he’s in the employ of a man who kills almost daily and whose rage is both swift and merciless. Nus Nus is who I’d want guarding my six and giving me “how to make it through another day” tips.

Mouley Ismael is a fascinating character. He is a chilling example of “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Was he psychotic? And why do psycho killers always like cats? Zidana reminded me of a huge black widow spider hanging right above your head. Move and she might bite you. Don’t move and she surely will.

What makes my grade a bit lower are some questions I ended up with. How did Nus Nus end up in service of the Sultan and in the jobs he has? It’s almost as if he sprang immediately from when he was castrated to being keeper of the Sultan’s couching book and thus keeper of the records that would establish the succession. Alys has a tremendous secret which is not discovered until almost the end of the book. Why didn’t she make use of it earlier? There are several points where it could have served her well though it would have lessened the impact on the reader but my immediate reaction to it was, “well, why didn’t she say so earlier??”

Initially the Sultan is fascinated with Alys’s coloring – blonde, blue eyed, pale skin – but I find it difficult to believe that he wouldn’t have had other European women in his harem or have seen the Christian slaves at work. His decision to breed a racially diverse army as well as her internal resistance to capitulating to him might account for his continued interest in her but that’s the only reason that’s given in the story. Again during this point I don’t see much of the changing dynamics from her POV.

The last but perhaps the most important is why does Nus Nus fall in love so quickly with Alys and when does she fall in love with him? He sees her blue-gray eyes and snap!, he’s smitten? I guess so. Once he falls his fidelity and defense of her are laudable but I wanted more than her coloring as a reason. I could see a little bit of her changing feelings but given the paucity of her POV as compared to his, again I wanted a bit more than I got.

Parts of this book are amazing. I was cheering Nus Nus on in his struggles to save the woman he loves and survive the psychotic Sultan he served. His reaction to the beauty of the music he heard in England moved me. The setting and characters make me want to go out and learn much more about them. But there were a few holes and tears in the tapestry plot that needed some repair. B-

~Jayne

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